Hide and seek: where is consensus to be found?

Making policy is seldom pure. It is mostly the intersection of ideas, interests and votes, with ministers as players and umpires. It is a game for the strong and articulate.

Take “drivers of crime”. A year ago Simon Power, essentially a liberal, having spent the 2008-09 summer whipping up bills to whip criminals, summoned a high-profile conference on the “drivers”. But in December he was still whipping, conceding ACT a three-strikes bill and passing it on to prisons boss Judith Collins.

Four streams of “drivers of crime” action were parcelled out to ministers: pre-natal intervention, schooling, alternative responses for “at-risk” young people and alcohol, on which the Law Commission is to report to Power soon. Whether that will evolve into a strategic drive on the drivers of crime may become clearer when the four ministers report to the cabinet midyear. Meantime, they are not tied into Sir Peter Gluckman’s transition-to-adulthood group of experts, noted here in February, aiming to provide a scientific basis for policy.

The policy point so far: bottom-of-the-cliff toughness beats top-of-the-cliff pre-emption. Anger is strong and loud and constructive engagement is weak and soft-spoken.

Take health. Tony Ryall has trumpeted his promised rise in “elective” surgery. That will please older folk who do most “electing” and who vote. But when money is tight, expanding one output means squeezing another — there is a limit to ingenuity. So “drivers of crime” such as mental health and drug addiction get less attention.

Also, Ryall’s focus on short-term gain from more operations blankets a bigger need, for a long-term strategy to fund health care, the cost of which rises faster than inflation and GDP and is compounded by rising numbers of old people.

The present votes and the future doesn’t (yet).

Take sustenance of the needy and indigent. Paula Bennett’s benefit taskforce is to see if add-ons and invalid and sickness benefits can be pared back and to think about an insurance approach. But she pays superannuation to fit 65-year-olds who are in jobs and don’t need it.

Old people vote noisily. The disabled and ill go unheard.

Take minerals. Cabinet “developers” want action, commendably to lift the average wage. The development minister is tasked to ensure the conservation minister doesn’t get in the way.

Logically, less-well-off people should cheer them on. But such people vote Labour, not National, at least in a good year for Labour (not 2008 and maybe not 2011, the way John Key is going) so they don’t count as on the developers’ side. And many National voters of the tweed-and-twinset sort like tuis and trees. So Key has turned down the development volume.

Take water. Cabinet “developers” are keen on a lot more storage and irrigation, to boost cashflow from milk and crops (though not the average wage).

But the rivers they want to access are dear to the tweed-and-twinset’s love of trout and water conservation orders. And tourism, the Prime Minister’s portfolio, is a competing development, especially high-end and eco-tourism. A growing number of tourists come expecting “100 per cent pure”.

So water policy must balance not only “development” and “the environment” but “development” and “development”.

That is of crucial relevance to the intervention by Nick Smith and Rodney Hide in Canterbury’s water, which is hotly contested, over-allocated and incompetently managed. Water is our biggest resource competitive advantage. We can’t afford the plenipotentiary Smith-Hide commission to get it wrong.

The Canterbury Regional Council (Ecan) could not fix water because of its even split between town and country councillors, the Resource Management Act’s inadequate guidance and governments’ failure to fix that inadequacy with national policy and standards. A circuit-breaker was needed.

Actually, a “collaborative” process spanning the spectrum from conservationists to irrigators had broadly agreed a water management plan. The Smith-Hide emergency legislation says their overlord commissioners must “have regard” to that plan. How effective that “regard” is will depend on who joins linear-thinking Dame Margaret Bazley on the commission. Local Government New Zealand is promoting people who know how local councils work.

But there is a bigger potential prize the commission has cut across. Smith last year asked the Land and Water Forum of all water interest groups to try to agree a national strategy by July. His Ecan move prompted some to threaten to pull out and risked prompting some to ease back.

The forum survived a crunch meeting late last week. That’s important. If the forum fails to develop a consensus that may kill the idea that really tough issues can be sorted by this sort of process, which Nordic countries routinely use.

Consensus-making isn’t a doddle. But it beats arbitrary umpiring by politicians, always reversible by umpires from the other side — which doesn’t do much for social cohesion or economic welfare.